Everything you know about the movement against the Vietnam War is wrong

Penny Lewis, a sociologist at CUNY’s Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, has a new book out: Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory.

It’s a revisionist account of the movement against the Vietnam War that completely upends our sense of who was for and against the war. Even more interesting, it tells us how we came to such an upside down view of the antiwar movement.

Luckily I don’t have to summarize the book because Penny’s got a terrific piece out in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education where she lays out the argument.

Just a quick excerpt:

The story we tell ourselves about social division over the war in Vietnam follows a particular, class-specific outline: The war “split the country” between “doves” and “hawks.” The “doves,” most often conflated with “the movement,” were upper-middle-class in their composition and politics. The movement was the New Left, and a big part of what made the New Left “new” was its break from the working-class politics and roots of the Old Left. Think of Dr. Benjamin Spock, Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Students for a Democratic Society, Weathermen: students, intellectuals, professionals, celebrities; liberal or radical privileged elites.

And what of the “hawks”? Beyond the military brass, war supporters are often imagined as “ordinary” Americans: white people from Middle America (a term coined in the 1960s), who supported God, country, and “our boys in the ‘Nam.” They were working-class patriots who insisted that criticism of the war meant criticism of the soldier. “If you can’t be with them, be for them,” as the sign read. Many of these Middle Americans epitomized moderate middle-class solidity and stolidity, while the workers among them, or members of the lower middle class, are remembered for having supported George Wallace and Richard Nixon, and their status as Reagan Democrats was imminent, even immanent, as early as 1968.

Most accounts of the working class depict them as largely supportive of the war and hostile to the numerous movements for social change. We need look no further than the most enduring image of the working class from that period, a certain cranky worker from Queens, N.Y. The TV character Archie Bunker, who brought the working class to prime time as white, bigoted, sexist, homophobic, and yearning for the good old days before the welfare state, when everybody pulled his weight, when girls were girls and men were men.

“Hardhats,” a stereotype based primarily on construction workers in New York City who assaulted antiwar protesters at a Manhattan rally in May 1970, were the iconic hawks. The most important working-class institution in the postwar era, the AFL-CIO, is remembered for being virulently anticommunist and vociferously pro-war; big labor’s embrace of the Vietnam cause confirmed the image of the working-class patriot who shouts “Love it or leave it!” at young, entitled hippies.

But this memory of the Vietnam era contains only half-truths, and overall it is a falsehood. The notion that liberal elites dominated the antiwar movement has served to obfuscate a more complex story. Working-class opposition to the war was significantly more widespread than is remembered, and parts of the movement found roots in working-class communities and politics.

In fact, by and large, the greatest support for the war came from the privileged elite, despite the visible dissension of a minority of its leaders and youth. The country was divided over the war, alongside many other pressing social issues—but the class dynamics of those divisions were complex, contradictory, and indeterminate.

Many books briefly discuss the discrepancy between our historical impression of class-based sentiment and its reality. Yet no account systematically explains why such a misperception exists, its extent, or its impact.

So read Penny’s piece. And then go buy her book. Trust me: you won’t regret it.


  1. jameslivingston May 16, 2013 at 9:18 pm | #

    Cf. Andrew Levison’s book, The Working Class Majority.

  2. Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) May 16, 2013 at 10:45 pm | #

    A few things worth noting along these lines:

    (1) The vast majority of “college kids” in the 60s were either raised in working class families, the first of their families to ever go to college, or else their fathers went to college on the GI Bill. Either way, the “elite college kids” in the anti-war movement were MUCH closer to the picket line than they were to the main line.

    (2) What ultimately ended the war operationally was the GI anti-war movement, which started with the grunts, and over time trickled all the way up to air force captains. The canon fodder refused to keep fighting, and so the US had to withdraw. Of course the Vietnamese were prepared to wait the US for generations, if necessary. But working class Americans drafted into the Army lead the way in making that unnecessary. *Soldiers In Revolt* is an excellent book about this.

    (3) The leadership role of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the support role of anti-war activists in helping to jump-start the GI Coffeehouse Movement are two of the most high-profile examples of how the college kids in #1 and the working-class draftees in #2 collaborated with each other.

    I look forward to reading the book.

    • Jeremy May 17, 2013 at 11:36 pm | #

      There were certainly some actual “elite college kids” out there picketing: http://www.deathandtaxesmag.com/172731/mitt-romney-loved-vietnam-draft-he-purposefully-avoided/

    • David Littleboy May 18, 2013 at 1:17 am | #

      “or else their fathers went to college on the GI Bill.”

      Hey, that’s me. But it’s hard for a WWII GI Bill recipient to get a kid into college by the 60s. At least here, father went straight on to college after the war, moved to Boston to work, and started dating. So I didn’t appear until 52, which means I wasn’t in college in the 60s. I suppose there were some GIs who worked faster than father, or perhaps already had kids before going off to war. But most GIs on the GI bill would be in college in the late 40s, starting families in the early 50s.

      I was (more than) a bit of a space cadet and didn’t make it to college until I was 20 (1972), but I strongly remember that the draft lottery squelched the on-campus anti-war sentiment beautifully; I completely missed the student activist period.

      By the way, I sent a letter to my draft office arguing that they couldn’t draft me because of X, Y, and Z (all of which were, while true, not valid reasons any more) in the spring of ’72 and blithely went off to college. They finally responded with a note saying they didn’t need me. _The day after the ’72 election_. The reek of political dirty tricks was strong.

  3. NewHavenGuy May 16, 2013 at 10:50 pm | #

    Trying to remember the book that I learned this from around 20 years ago. A lot of polls referenced, contours of which were surprising to me then, but yeah, What She Said. I’ll check out the book. Who knows, it might do well. I’m pleasantly surprised to see that Nick Turse’s horrifying (and excellent) “Kill Anything that Moves” is selling. Really surprised.

  4. ralphiesmom May 16, 2013 at 11:34 pm | #
  5. Tom Gardner May 16, 2013 at 11:42 pm | #

    Good comments above. Our radical collective and its newspaper The Virginia Weekly had been supporting the nearby UE local in Waynesboro, VA during the national 1969 GE strike. The president of the local came over to our anti-war rally on campus and spoke simply and eloquently. He said, “I ask one question of any policy – is it good for the kids? From what I can see, the answer is NO – it is killing our kids and kids over there. The war must stop.”

    • Mitchell Freedman May 18, 2013 at 8:47 am | #

      The UE was the only major union to not purge its Reds. It is unique among most of the other unions in the US post-WWII and into the 1970s. I personally found Ms. Lewis’ thesis unproven, though I’ll look for her book. It is a half truth to say that “all” “hardhats” were hawks, but it is still a general truth. I grew up in Woodbridge, NJ, where there were plenty of hardhats who went from Kennedy-Johnson liberals basking in the New Deal to Reagan Republicans, forget even Reagan Democrats. They hated “the kids” who were against “‘merica” and the war, even as they doubted the war after a long while.

      We should not fall into the rhetorical trap that just because something is not fully true, it must be a myth and ultimately false. The world is simply too complicated to jump to that conclusion. It is the mistake of bad (as opposed to good) engineers who think something is off if it is not on.

  6. Jane Doe (@LoopingState) May 17, 2013 at 12:36 am | #

    This video featuring Noam Chomsky’s activism may be of interest to some: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqEYSq5ZUpY

  7. zenner41 May 17, 2013 at 12:41 am | #

    As someone who remembers that period well, I agree that this is absolutely right. True, there were some stereotypical “hard-hat patriots,” but Paul is right — the war ended basically because more and more GIs, who were not by any means sons of the upper classes, got the hell out of ‘Nam (and some even fragged their superiors), and more and more of their colleagues who had not yet entered the military just ignored their “greetings from the President,” so that eventually the draft system basically collapsed — the FBI couldn’t possible catch all of them.

    • zenner41 May 17, 2013 at 12:42 am | #

      “Possibly,” I should say.

  8. Gaurav Khanna May 17, 2013 at 1:14 am | #

    Cory — thank you for letting us know about this; excellent article by Penny Lewis.

  9. Malcolm Schosha May 17, 2013 at 10:15 am | #

    New Left draft card burning and flag burning was a disaster for the political Left in the US from which it may never recover. To quote Saul Alinsky (1971): “This failure of many of your younger activists to understand the art of communication has been disastrous. Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience – and gives full respect to the other’s values – would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience.” But there was an Occupy flag burning at Oakland (that went viral), and perhaps others even more recent, so what has been learned from former mistakes?

    • Benjamin David Steele May 17, 2013 at 1:14 pm | #

      Hippies burning flags are like the stories about hippies spitting on soldiers. At best, it was an extremely rare incident committed by isolated individuals. In the latter example, not a single incident was ever proven.

      It really doesn’t matter if there was an original event behind a myth. Myths have a tendency to take on a life of their own, especially after being promoted by government propaganda and/or rhetoric from well-funded think tanks.

      There are always all kinds of people all acoss the spectrum doing all kinds of things. It is like the Willie Horton ads. Yes, such things are poweful. We should be concerned. But we should never make the mistake of taking them at face value.

      • Malcolm Schosha May 18, 2013 at 10:43 am | #

        “Myths have a tendency to take on a life of their own, especially after being promoted by government propaganda and/or rhetoric from well-funded think tanks.”

        You seem to be missing the point. The problem Alinsky was pointing out, is the New Left’s failure to present their opposition to the Vietnam War in terms that many blue-collar workers could relate to. There is actually some reason to think they were not even interested it trying. The result of that was that a lot of union workers who had voted Democrat all their lives, voted for Nixon in 1968. It could have been different. That is not “government propaganda,” New Left arrogance and political stupidity was (and is) the real thing.

      • Benjamin David Steele May 18, 2013 at 8:03 pm | #

        I’ve heard that argument before. It is based on an assumption that most people make. That assumption is that lower income voters switched from Democrats to Republicans.

        The problem with the assumptions made in the mainstream is that they often are wrong. People repeat something enough that it starts seeming like a unquestionable given, an obvious commonsense truth. Besides it being repeated, why do people jump to the conclusion that the working class turned against the Democrats?

        As ralphiesmom pointed out above (and do check out the data at the link):

        “Decades ago, I read something that said the largest segment against the war were people with a grade school education. Ah, here it is in this book preview:”


        Larry M. Bartels, in Unequal Democracy, explored this issue. He discovered that the bottom third income bracket has remained solidly Democratic since the Progressive Era. He also observed that Democrats haven’t even lost the white vote across the country. He did note, however, that Democrats lost the white vote in the South.

        There is interesting data that I don’t think Bartels discussed. Democrats haven’t lost the white vote across the board even in the South. The Southern white youth vote has gone to Democrats. Even more interesting and also contrary to mainstream assumptions, Democrats never lost the South. The majority of eligible voters in the South support the Democrats. However, because of disenfranchisement (long voting lines in poor areas, voter purges, etc), the Democratic majority in the South rarely wins elections.

        Democrats don’t lose elections because they’ve lost the American people. Most Americans, including the white working class, are fairly liberal and increasingly so on many major political issues:


        Democrats and liberals do need to rethink their assumptions, but maybe not the assumptions they think they need to rethink.

  10. David Littleboy May 17, 2013 at 2:23 pm | #

    FWIW, here’s what it looked like to those of us who where there (Peace rally on the Boston Common in 1971: click “original” for a lot more detail.)


  11. jonst May 18, 2013 at 11:41 am | #

    . “The problem Alinsky was pointing out, is the New Left’s failure to present their opposition to the Vietnam War in terms that many blue-collar workers could relate to. This was patently unneeded. You had a draft…’every kid on the block’, or a critical mass of them/us could convey what was going on in Vietnam.

    • Malcolm Schosha May 18, 2013 at 4:41 pm | #

      “…’every kid on the block’, or a critical mass of them/us could convey what was going on in Vietnam.”

      Likewise, everyone who worked as a coal miner in Harlan County knew they had terrible working conditions and were being economically exploited too. But it still took union organizers to present unions as the solution in terms they could relate to, while also pressuring the owners to sign a contract. If some New Left types had shown up in Harlan County and burned the flag, it would have made the mine owners happy.

      When Alinsky started organizing communities in Chicago, he worked with the Church. He was trying to do something effective to make their lives better. The community was mostly religious Catholics, so that is what he worker with. If he started criticizing the Church, it would have ended his organizing for that community. The New Left never figured that out.

      • jonst May 19, 2013 at 10:51 am | #

        If you can’t see the difference btwn a select groups of workers, however numerous, in a given community, v. a nationwide class (all people above the age of 18) of people exposed to being drafted into the US military, there is little I can say further to you on the subject. You are a ‘vertical’…someone has to control the message. The draft, at that time, and note they got rid of it shortly after, was a ‘horizontal’ happening. Every kid on the block saw what was happening…they needed no ‘grown ups’ or ‘intellectuals, (most of whom were NOT in the service) to refine a message. Some may have supported the war, some may not have, some may have been indifferent, but on a personal basis, everyone had a chance to see what it was doing to the men and boys, who came back.

  12. Dene Karaus May 18, 2013 at 10:57 pm | #

    Whose opposition really counted? That’s the important issue. Muhammed Ali’s. He went to prison for refusing induction. His counted. He set an example.

    Those who refused the draft. Their’s counted. Those who marched with signs and stood up, their’s counted. Those who left for overseas or Canada, their’s counted.

    Why? Because it was one less soldier available, and one additional powerful voice working to change peoples minds day by day.

    Ministers, priests and rabbis, who stood bravely in front of congregations who didn’t wish to entertain anti-war rhetoric in their public religious lives, their’s counted. Each individual who took an ethics class in college (millions did) and realized the war was completely immoral, their opposition counted.

    The people who turned against the war because we were losing, their’s DID NOT COUNT. That sort of opposition to war is bereft of meaning, and comes too late to affect the course of the war. It was a gutless response to an earlier failure to stand up for what would have been right.

  13. Murray Reiss May 20, 2013 at 12:58 pm | #

    I’d love to read her piece. Any way of doing so without shelling out $76 for a year’s subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education?

  14. Benjamin David Steele May 23, 2013 at 7:10 pm | #

    By the way, this is far from being the first book about this precise same issue. It is a very stubborn myth that is hard to kill. I wrote about these other books earlier this year:


  15. Janice McCombie May 24, 2013 at 10:56 am | #

    I am the daughter of a steelworker from Southwestern Pennsylvania with two younger brothers. Although my brothers were quite young, throughout the war, there was a constant refrain from my father: ‘I’ll take my boys to Canada.” It did seem as though the war would never end. At the steel mill, my father worked with several young men who got drafted, and one of them was killed in Vietnam. My father attended his funeral. He was bitterly aware that the college deferment kept privileged young men out of harm’s way. He was a proud union man, and his father, a coal miner, was actually a union organizer. I remember sitting on his lap as a little girl, and he would tell me about FDR and the Fireside Chats. He did, and still does, a terrific FDR impression! When people ask me what my politics are, I always tell them that I am a “New Dealer.” This often results in puzzlement from people who are a bit younger than me, which leads me to believe that at some point after I finished high school, they stopped teaching kids American History.

    Several young men from my small town died in the war. I was a bit too young to have any of them as school mates, so did not know any of them, nor did I happen to know any of their siblings. But I very much doubt that my father’s attitude toward the war was an unusual one in my hometown.

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